Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jews celebrate at El-Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia

DJERBA, Tunisia, May 16 (Reuters) - Thousands of Jews have flocked to a two-day celebration at the El Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia, where a suicide bomber killed 21 people in 2002.

Some 5,000 Jews have attended the two-day festival, which began on Monday. Some travelling from France, Germany and Israel to join the commemoration of the end of a plague 2,000 years ago which, legend says, killed thousands of Jews.

After the 2002 bombing, the number of people attending the festival shrank to hundreds from more than 7,000 in most years.

Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bomber, who rammed a tanker loaded with cooking gas into the synagogue.

In an inner courtyard lined with columns and arches, men recited prayers and blessings were made over glasses of Bokha fig liqueur.

A crowd of pilgrims wrote their names on eggs and threw them into a candle-lit grotto, hoping to realize dreams of marriage, pregnancy or better health.

"I'm happy to be in my country for the third successive year," said Tunisian-born Israeli Hayem Houri, noting it is an "opportunity to fraternise among Jews, Muslims and Christians".

"We must make a difference between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the necessity to talk with our Muslims brothers", Houri, 67, added.

The government encourages the festival on the southern island of Djerba and deploys security personnel to protect participants.

Revellers pray, dance, sing and burn bonfires for two days to commemorate victory over war, plague and suffering.

The present building is 75 years old but there has been a synagogue on the site for what some estimate to be 1,900 years.

According to legend, it was founded by Cohanim (priests) who brought a door from the destroyed first temple in Jerusalem and build the shrine around it.

Some 2,000 Jews live in Tunisia, a Muslim secular state of 10 million people. In the 1950s, there were some 100,000 Jews in the country.

See here for report on last year's celebrations

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